In late December 2019 the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) announced its cessation, as of the end of the calendar year, not with a bang, but with a whimper, just a little note on the bottom of their website homepage.
As is well-known, the FMSF was created by Pamela and Peter Freyd, after the husband of their adult daughter, Professor Jennifer Freyd, privately accused Peter Freyd of sexually abusing her when she was a child. Peter and Pamela Freyd, along with Ralf Underwager, a psychologist and Lutheran minister, and his wife Hollida Wakefield, joined with accused parents and then spent considerable energy assembling a broader academic and intellectual group to add credibility to their claims that clients in therapy were ‘making up’ stories of abuse. They claimed, with increasing vigour, that their now adult children were victims of therapists who encouraged the recovery of ‘false memories’. A particular focus of the FMSF was the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder and controversies regarding alleged Satanic Ritual Abuse.
The Establishment of the Advisory Board
The FMSF, keen to appear like any other professional association, established a ‘Scientific and Professional Advisory Board’. A quick look at the Board suggests a rather cobbled-together group of disparate members. The list included, somewhat incongruously, Aaron T. Beck, widely regarded as the founder of modern cognitive therapy. Another Board member was Elizabeth Loftus, whose false memory research has been regarded by memory researchers as influential, but increasingly controversial, with original claims being regarded as over-stated (Crook & McEwen, 2019; Blizard & Shaw, 2019). Rather bizarrely, another was a magician, entertainer and celebrity ‘sceptic’, James Randi.
Underwager, one of the founding members of the FMSF and an original Board member, who made substantial amounts of money acting as an expert witness for the defence in child sexual abuse cases, was arguably the most controversial. When he became involved in the formation of the FMSF, he was already well known for his views against child protection, as one of the founders of VOCAL – which stood for Victims of Child Abuse Laws, a support group for people who claimed to be falsely accused. He had already famously stated in the media and in court that 60% of women sexually abused in childhood reported that the experience was ‘good for them’.
Underwager gave evidence for the defence in over 200 child sexual abuse cases in the USA, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia. Psychologist, Anna Salter published a scholarly demolition of his published systematic misrepresentations on the subject. Underwager filed several unsuccessful law suits against Salter. Her exploration of the ethical issues surrounding the work of Underwager and Wakefield, and their harassment of her is well worth reading (Salter, 1998).
In 1993, together with his wife, Board Member Hollida Wakefield, Underwager gave an interview to the Dutch pro-paedophilia magazine, Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia.
Underwager famously proclaimed, “Paedophiles can boldly and courageously affirm what they choose. They can say that what they want is to find the best way to love. I am also a theologian and as a theologian, I believe it is God’s will that there be closeness and intimacy, unity of the flesh, between people. A paedophile can say: ‘This closeness is possible for me within the choices that I’ve made.’”
As a result of the Paidika interview Underwager was forced to resign from the FMSF Board, but Wakefield remained as a Board member.
FMSF Advisory Board profiles show just how personal and sometimes vicious their involvement was. One Board Member, John Hochman MD wrote, when talking about therapy for people who reported a history of child sexual abuse, “The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate cry-baby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems. It’s all someone else’s fault.” It is hard to fathom that these words come from a mental health professional.
Another member, Dr Rosalind Cartwright PhD, describes her desire to become involved as follows: “A friend and colleague had an adult daughter in therapy accuse him of childhood sexual abuse.” She says, “It was my best judgment that this was unbelievable of the person I knew and could only been induced by the therapist.” One can only wonder if she had had any psychological training or knowledge of how common it is for perpetrators to present and operate quite differently within the family home, as opposed to the professional sphere. And how on earth she reaches a conclusion of ‘therapist induced memory’, with presumably no contact with the daughter or therapist, is difficult to fathom. This same Society which was accusing therapists of ‘making up false memories’ clearly had no qualms about using personal opinion, in the apparent absence of any factual information, to discredit survivors. Little wonder that so few survivors report abuse, or seek therapy, even decades later.
The fact that such quotes have remained on the Board Members Profiles, clearly visible to the public, to this present time, is perhaps the true indication that this organisation has been left behind, out of touch with research, and out of touch with public sentiment in regard to both survivors and the validity of therapy for survivors. The fact that 23 out of the 48 listed Board members are deceased and appear not to have been replaced, is another indicator.
The FMSF became famous for exhorting followers to sue therapists and it was positive towards those who picketed therapists’ offices. The FMSF never managed to have the vaguely defined so-called “False Memory Syndrome” ever accepted by a mainstream diagnostic system.
Personal Attacks of the FMSF
While presenting, on one level, an attempt to be scientific and clinical, at least some of the founders were also using the FMSF to cast aspersions on their accusers, intimidate them or manipulate them. Professor Jennifer Freyd herself documents the actions of her mother Pamela Freyd as she set about a frenzied defence of her husband. One graphic example is outlined in the book Blind to Betrayal (Freyd & Birrell, 2013). The book details how Pamela Freyd wrote a thinly veiled, ‘anonymous’ account of her daughters alleged ‘false accusations’, changing enough detail to cast aspersions on her daughter’s character, but not enough to make the account truly anonymous. She then posted the article, with a letter from herself on FMSF letterhead to Professor Freyd’s professional colleagues, identifying Freyd and attempting to undermine her, just at the time she was being assessed for promotion!
Professor Freyd then recounts that, rather than some of her colleagues being turned off by such a misuse of power, they actually joined the Advisory Board! In a further twist, Pamela Freyd then invited her own daughter onto the FMSF Scientific and Professional Advisory Board (Freyd & Birrell, 2013).
The FMSF then began to attack professionals working with child abuse survivors. Therapists were accused, without evidence, of encouraging clients to make up memories of abuse. This story was swallowed whole by large sections of the profession and the general public. No one seemed to stop and wonder why, if it was so possible to create false memories, therapists were not running around creating false memories of happy childhoods. Wouldn’t we want to bask in our success as clients ran off happy and ‘cured’?
Rather disturbingly, whole sections of the media and the community accused an entire professional field of gross misconduct, without objective examination of the evidence. However, they could not have done this without the support of a group of mental health practitioners and researchers who endorsed their claims. Many clinicians, practicing within accepted guidelines and treating complex cases, were vilified, had their offices picketed, faced legal harassment, and were subject to accusation and attack from colleagues. While as a field we cannot control the actions of the media or the general public, there is general agreement that it is part of our professional ethics that we uphold high standards of professional discourse, including dis-allowing public accusations and vilification of other professional colleagues, and the absence of regulation of this needs serious scrutiny.
False Memory Societies Spread Internationally
Following on from the formation of the FMSF in 1992, an Australian affiliated society, the Australian False Memory Association was formed in 1993. It has been defunct for many years. The last time there was an updated entry on their website was approximately 20 years ago. The leading spokesperson in Australia on behalf of the Australian False Memory Association, a psychiatrist, Dr Gerome Gelb, was exposed for egregious plagiarism and subsequently arrested for taking a loaded handgun into a Melbourne magistrate’s court in 2007. He was twice suspended from practice as a psychiatrist – once for having sex with a patient, and then for firearms offences. (Harrison & Butcher, 2007; McArthur, 2009).
The British False Memory Society was also formed in 1993. The founder of the ‘false memory’ movement in Britain was an accused father, Roger Scotford, and he seems to have had the benefit of having substantial personal financial resources.
Despite the demise of the US and Australian societies, in some other countries (the UK, Germany, France) offshoots of the original FMSF remain active. However, along the way a number of “False Memory” societies (the Israeli FMS, the New Zealand Casualties of Sexual Allegations society (COSA), along with other small groupings in Belgium, Canada, The Netherlands and Sweden) had fairly brief existences. The NZ national organisation, COSA formed in 1994 and closed in 1999, though the Auckland branch continued on to 2000.
A number of others closely associated with the FMSF (including satellite organisations) have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children and/or being involved in serious boundary violations. It is a fascinating and disturbing history, one that is still evolving.
Memory Research as a Casualty
Very quickly, amongst all this, the complexities of memory and trauma memory became confused and dumbed down. Normal errors of memory specifics, or difficulty in accessing a memory, were frequently conflated to become ‘false memories’, leading to an assumption that entire memories were wrong.
Even today, discussion of recovered memory and false memory research tends to lack objective scientific dialogue. Debates are frequently characterised by people hunkering down with theoretical rigidity and engaging in ad hominin attack, rather than using scientific debate to further knowledge (Andrews & Brewin, 2017). It is also possible that the field has suffered from both the ‘file drawer effect’, where non-significant results are not published, as well as from publisher bias (Brewin & Andrews, 2016; Andrews & Brewin, 2017). It is equally important to note that the study scope has been limited and has not investigated all aspects of false memory creation, including the potential for perpetrators to manipulate children’s memory as part of evading detection (Becker-Blease & Freyd, 2017). It is almost as if the field has been driven more by the needs of legal defence teams than by true scientific enquiry.
False memory researchers seemed to have made incongruous assumptions about what goes on in therapy or legal investigations. There is nothing that happens in therapy, nor in a legal investigation, that is anything like bringing in a trusted family member to lie to clients, along with possibly supplying some doctored photos! Perhaps the greatest problem of all has been the ongoing separation between researchers in the field and clinical practitioners, making research of limited applicability to the modern clinical setting. Meanwhile, two generations of therapists have studied incomplete and biased information about recovered memory, false memories and even trauma memory itself.
How did this all happen?
For a while, the power of the FMSF was such that it seemed that the only people in the world with false memories were those who reported child abuse. It also seemed, again for a while, that their accused abusers could only possess accurate memories when they denied the abuse occurred. That this was swallowed by the public, the media and many professionals bears scrutiny.
While it is not unusual for a syndrome to get its own foundation, it is unusual for a false, or non-existent syndrome to get its own foundation. Somehow the False Memory Syndrome managed to do just that. The how and why of this incredible feat deserves considerable thought and exploration. It is the task not only of the complex trauma and dissociation field, but also the task of the media, the legal profession and many other areas of mental health to explore this.
Given such unhealthy dynamics and the rather abusive tactics of the FMSF one wonders how the organisation gained the profile and apparent credibility that it did (in some circles at least). Indeed, it seems this would not have been possible without the backing of some particularly generous donors. Who they were, and what their motives were, certainly deserves scrutiny, particularly in light of what we have learned in more recent years about the sexually abusive behaviour of some of America’s richest men.
The success of the FMSF would certainly not have been possible without the assistance of the international media and journalists more keen to publish a sensationalistic headline than investigate the complexities of child abuse. We now live in an era where organisational and institutional abuse are well-recognised, where powerful men can be gaoled for historic child abuse and where social media has unleashed the #MeToo movement. In the face of such evidence for child sexual abuse it will be interesting to see if the media examines its role in the formation of an organisation that did so much to suppress victims of child sexual abuse, while uplifting and encouraging those accused of such crimes.
And we, as a field also need to examine ourselves and learn from the past. Although no doubt well-intentioned, we did leave ourselves vulnerable to attack, otherwise the FMSF would probably never have gained the leverage they did.
Where to now?
It is a significantly different world in 2020 from the world that allowed for the creation of the FMSF back in 1992 and the truth is that this organisation has been struggling against a tide of evidence for quite some time. The bell has been tolling for them and perhaps the first death knell was the persistence of the feminist movement, which gave a wider voice to those who asserted that sexual abuse was a real and valid problem. The second death knell was the spread of information about institutional abuse. A whole generation was able to stand witness to the fact that a global community wrongly doubted the stories of many thousands of children abused in churches, schools and other institutions for innumerable decades. In another death knell, there has been increasingly a growing public focus on intergenerational family abuse, which has added further credibility to the abuse of children within families (Middleton, 2013).
Today we live in a world where the widespread abuses associated with churches, schools, orphanages, the scouting movement, sporting organisations, internet paedophile groupings, cults, the military, not to mention the family, have been verified many times over, where the #MeToo movement has traction, and where we contemplate the reality of the trafficking of youth for sexual purposes by a man who was friends with not one, but two American presidents, not to mention a member of the British Royal Family.
So, what to make of the little announcement hidden away at the bottom of the FMSF homepage? It is a fitting, although rather belated, end for an organisation which caused so much pain to so many survivors.
The wary among us suggest that the demise of the FMSF is a time for us to watch and be vigilant. They predict the beast of denial will rise again. Likely, they are correct. There are powerful forces which wish to suppress the voices of women and children, who make up the bulk of survivors of sexualised violence. Cultural pressures to doubt the testimony of women and children dates back as far as the Bible, and older. There can also be great psychological comfort in denial. It could be argued that the Foundation has dissolved, just so other organisations and groups can form, with a profile more palatable for today’s media.
Doubtless, there will continue to be attacks on those who report child abuse, regardless of whether the memories are ‘recovered’ or not. While cultural and political pressure to doubt the testimony of women and children who report sexual abuse pre-dates the FMSF, it goes without saying that the ‘false memory’ movement enabled society to ignore a whole new generation of abused children. We do not want this to happen again and it is vital we reflect on our history and are well-prepared for backlash.
As a group of professionals who work with survivors, and have ongoing clinical, theoretical and empirical interests in the study of memory, it falls to us to continue to lead the field with professionalism and scientific accuracy. We must continue to build on our conceptualisation and knowledge of trauma, dissociation and memory, carefully building, not walls, but bridges with our knowledge. We must continue to take care not to overstate our knowledge, claim rumour as fact, nor present belief as fact. It is important for everyone in our field to study our history, to learn from this distressing time, and be well-prepared for ongoing challenges. This is a time for us to be careful and wise.
We need to continue to debate the way we deal with memories in therapy and refine our practice so that we are able to be supportive of survivors, while adhering to best practice. This debate needs to be evidence-based and scholarly, firmly grounded in the study of clinical dynamics and therapy practice.
We need to encourage and support the study of memory in both naturalistic and experimental conditions. We need to break down the ongoing divide between experimental memory researchers and practicing clinicians, so that memory research becomes more relevant to the clinic, and researchers become more aware of modern clinical practice.
However, politically, it is also time for us to be strong, as individuals and as a collective. Therapists, as a general rule, are used to ‘turning the other cheek’, ignoring, or defusing attack. By necessity we are trained to deal with conflict through discussion and reason. However, this very approach may not always be helpful, when under attack by those who do not respect scientific discourse, nor ethical practice. We need to learn when to be strong, to demand evidence from those who accuse us of ‘implanting false memories’ or ‘iatrogenesis of DID’, and call them to account for claims which damage survivors, as well as the clinical practice of therapists.
Andrews, B. & Brewin, C.R. (2017). False Memories and Free Speech: Is Scientific Debate Being Suppressed? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31: 45–49. DOI: 10.1002/acp.3285
Becker-Blease, K. & Freyd, J.J. (2017). Additional Questions about the Applicability of “False Memory” Research, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31: 34-36. DOI: 10.1002/acp.3266
Brewin, C.R. & Andrews, B. (2017). Creating Memories for False Autobiographical Events in Childhood: A Systematic Review, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31: 2–23. DOI: 10.1002/acp.3220
Freyd, J. & Birrell, P. (2013). Blind to Betrayal: Why we fool ourselves we aren’t being fooled. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey
Harrison, D. & Butcher, S. (2007, February 3). The shrink, his wife, a pistol and the ex, The Age. Retrieved from: https://www.theage.com.au/national/the-shrink-his-wife-a-pistol-and-the-ex-20070203-ge450j.html
McCarther, G. (2009, September 16). Psychiatrist admits inappropriate sexual relationship with patient. Retrieved from: https://www.news.com.au/news/doctor-admits-affair-wrong/news-story/2b8a6f303fa31e259000e4808f7022e2?sv=12e1f0d4921cf87a18278f757f64509f
Middleton, W. (2013) Parent–Child Incest that Extends into Adulthood: A Survey of International Press Reports, 2007–2011, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 14:2, 184-197, DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2013.724341
Salter, A. (1998) “Confessions of a whistle blower: Lessons learned. Ethics and Behavior. 8(2), 115–124]
University of Oregon psychologist Professor Jennifer Freyd, who pioneered the study of betrayal trauma, was honored April 2, 2016 in San Francisco with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.
“Professor Freyd has been, and continues to be, an enormous contributor to the trauma and dissociation field,” noted the citation for the award. “She introduced the model of betrayal trauma to the literature, has supervised large numbers of doctoral research projects, is highly involved in researching campus sexual violence and has been editor of the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation since 2002, a role that she has filled with grace and distinction.”
“Your award is very richly deserved,” Society president Professor Warwick Middleton told Freyd. Middleton, who is director of the Trauma and Dissociation Unit of Belmont Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, introduced Freyd and presented the award during the association’s 33rd annual conference.
“One of the most pleasurable duties I performed during my year as ISSTD President was being able to personally be involved in presenting Jennifer with her ISSTD Lifetime Achievement Award in San Francisco in 2016.” – Warwick Middleton